Today, for the first time since March, millions of households face potential eviction in cities and states across the country. Yesterday, eviction moratoriums put into place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic expired in Atlanta, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Today, similar bans expire in Nevada, California, and Florida. Given that in Pennsylvania alone, about 1 in 5 tenants reported missing July rents or mortgage payments and said at the time they had “no confidence” they could make August rents, many analysts fear a wave of evictions could be heading down the pipeline. Now, state governors and municipal officials must decide whether to extend the moratoriums (and, arguably, the inevitable) or allow landlords and tenants, lenders and borrowers, to work the situation out on their own.
In Pennsylvania, the governor has already hinted that he might extend the state’s moratorium a second time pending approval from the general assembly. Similarly, Florida governor Ron DeSantis said he might do the same in his state for a fifth time. California governor Gavin Newsom has already introduced a bill protecting renters. Nevada governor Steve Sisolak extended his state’s eviction moratorium at the eleventh hour last night, although he only added 45 days to the grace period. Sisolak said he does not necessarily expect the extension to prevent many of the foreclosures or evictions, but hopes it “will allow more time for [rental assistance and foreclosure mediation] programs to be fully implemented”. Nevada faces a huge backlog of unemployment claims that, if met, could help many households pay off their delinquent housing debts.
Of course, the extension of these bans and moratoriums does not necessarily benefit all parties involved. Many landlords have complained that the last-minute extensions create particular hardship because they have less than 24 hours to figure out how to handle their own property debts. In Nevada, Sisolak has responded to these concerns with short-term rental assistance for landlords, although the details of that program have yet to be fully fleshed out.
Another issue that plagues these moratorium programs is the prevailing lack of information about how households are affected by the bans. For example, in California, which enacted a more sweeping ban than many other states, did not prevent evictions that had been in process prior to March. Many tenants believed they were protected and, as a result, did not reach out to landlords prior to their eviction court proceedings, believing the entire process had been frozen. The result was that many cases went forward, leaving it in the hands of local sheriff’s offices to decide whether or not to enforce court-ordered evictions.
“Really, there is no precedent for the situation we are in,” said Navneet Grewel, a litigation counsel for Disability Rights California. Grewel and his group have been advocating that Newsom use his broad emergency powers to freeze all evictions rather than just those that appear chronologically to have resulted from COVID-19-related lockdowns. However, counter attorneys for landlords struggling to keep their own finances afloat, this type of freeze would essentially make property owners responsible for the safety and wellbeing of non-paying renters.
“It is somewhat unfair to say to a landlord who is in business, ‘Hey, it is now your obligation to support this person,’” said California landlord attorney Todd Rothbard. “Because it’s not.” The waters are particularly murky in California, where extremely strong renters’ rights regulations often enable delinquent tenants to remain in residence for months or even years after their last rent payment, bill landlords for maintenance issues on properties, and sometimes even take temporary possession of rentals. One landlord who decided not to evict a tenant in March for delinquent rents prior to COVID-19 now cannot open a case even though her tenants are tens of thousands of dollars behind on rent.
“I like them, and I wanted to help, [but]…I went through my savings, now I’m robbing other bills,” she explained. “I don’t know what to do.”